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Great Barrier Reef Politics

Australia’s environment has been in precarious hands since European settlement found its lengthy and persistent way to the continent. It has been mined, mauled, drained, farmed, deforested and despoiled at a rate that was only restrained by the size of its small but rapacious populace. When environmental matters have made an appearance, they have done so with a veil of political opportunism. Few typify this more than Labor’s environment minister Senator Graham Richardson’s efforts regarding the Tasmanian forests. To win over the conservation-minded voter in marginal, city-based seats, it was good to go green – at least for a bit.

The Great Barrier Reef has not been exempt from the political tussles of a troubled environmental conscience. Its monumental size, and its status as an ecological wonder meant little in the late 1960s, when the appetite for development mattered most. In 1967, it seemed to be facing imminent destruction, another casualty of a predatory mining industry keen for new conquests. The state of Queensland had elected a National Party government hungry to exploit the environment’s wares.

As local tour operator Alistair Pike explained to the ABC, “We had a fairly full-on development oriented government … and mate, if they couldn’t drill it, mine it, chop it down or whatever, they really didn’t want to know about it.” It took characters such as that feted “rat bag” of an activist, rogue of action and Mission Beach artist John Büsst to bring angered but focused attention on threats to bulldoze Ellison Reef. An impeccably connected person, he had the ear of Australian prime minister and fellow diver Harold Holt. A cast of characters were duly mobilised: the CSIRO forester Len Webb, and president of the Queensland Wildlife Society Judith Wright became enthusiastic and un-phased recruits.

In the Australian environmental conscience, this gorgeously freakish wonder of ecology has been seen in isolation, its problems a local provenance and interest rather than a global phenomenon of ailing. As the earth continues is warming push, earthbound, and very terrestrially unimaginative politicians have been attempting to treat the Reef’s woes as separately resolvable from the broader challenges of climate change.

Little wonder, then, that a problem viewed in such limited terms could be duly remedied by donations without tender, lump sum payments without review. Narrowly viewed problems tend to lead to narrowly devised solutions. Such was the nature of the Turnbull government’s $444 million “rescue package” to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, one conceived and delivered in a haze.

The issue of who takes the reins and ensures study and conservation was never going to be free of a political push. While common sense suggests that the task be left to government organisations within the scientific community – CSIRO, the Australian Institute for Marine Science and the Marine Park Authority, other contenders have been stalking the scene.

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation was deemed the chosen one, but questions are circulating as to why that outfit got preferment for such largesse. For one thing, it seemed an oddly hasty move, given that it entailed an expenditure of almost the entire spending allocation for the 2050 Reef Partnership program.

Then came the organisation’s profile. Its chief executive Anna Marsden is married to Ben Myers, chief of staff to former Queensland premier Campbell Newman. (Newman can be counted, incidentally, as one of those durable environmental sceptics who prefers the bulldozer to reef hugging conservation). One of the four founding businessmen behind the venture is the current chairman of the foundation, and former chairman of Esso Australia and the Commonwealth Bank. Advocates of barrier reef protection, beware.

That particular non-profit group had a revenue stream of less than $8 million in 2017, a humble outfit with six full time employees. Nothing suggests that those working for it had a clue that this staggering cash supply was coming their way. “We didn’t have much time before the announcement to be prepared for it,” came the perplexed, albeit thrilled Marsden. Easy to understand why Marsden considered this winning the lottery. Overnight, even given a spread of funding over six years, the Foundation has become one of the largest, if not largest NGO in Australia. By way of grim contrast, government employees connected with the science fraternity are facing skint measures to fund their projects.

The bungling has led to Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, asking the secretary of his department to urge the National Audit Office to give the funding arrangement serious consideration “as a priority”.

This piqued the interest of Tony Burke, Labor’s opposition spokesman, who claimed that it “was an extraordinary step for the secretary of the department to be sending a letter like that to the Auditor-General at the exact same time that Josh Frydenberg is standing up in Parliament saying there is no problem here”.

The outstanding feature of the funding spill to the foundation is its conspicuous absence of any reference to climate change. It is a hermetic form of deliverable rescue sans climate science, an approach that politically factors in the climate change sceptics within the Turnbull government. By all means try to preserve an Australian wonder; but ditch the climate science. The conclusion of one unnamed scientist to the Fairfax press about the nature of this arrangement was elementary and crude: “Obviously this is political – it’s to head off Labor making a big issue of the Great Barrier Reef at the next election.” Woe to the reef.


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  1. Pilot

    “Obviously this is political – it’s to head off Labor making a big issue of the Great Barrier Reef at the next election.”

    And it has made it a definite topic for the election. Turnbull and his cohort are funding their mates in the mining industry. A Foundation with a foundation in the mining & resource industry, a foundation with 6 employees. An absolute disgrace.

    If Labor can’t make this an event to remember, we need a new Opposition Leader. Sorry Bill, but you need to work on this and make the bastards pay for their obvious bastardry and deception.

    The CSIRO is perfectly placed to make things happen, but Australia currently governed by LUDDITES who….. well, we all know what these village idiots have done….. LNP are dishonest, deceptive and deceitful, they are a disgrace!!

  2. Paul

    The sort of decisions an OUTGOING govt. makes.
    I wonder how transparent the spending will be?
    The writing is on the wall, any opportunity to bankrupt the political purse and neuter the incoming administration.

    Reminds me of Kennett near the end.

  3. John Boyd

    I can’t help wondering how much of that $444 million they expect to find its way back to the Liberal Party. With all those mates on the board, not to mention the patron…

  4. guest

    Was it Hunt who had any references to problems at the Reef taken out of international reports?
    Typical censorship to hide the truth.

    Dr Kampmark is right to point out the historical attack on the Australian environment, from turning the place into a quarry, shooting anything that moves and chopping down anything that doesn’t, introducing destructive flora and fauna and employing inappropriate agricultural practices.

    Along with that historical ignorance and neglect, all aimed at making as much money as possible, is the present scientific ignorance which will cost us more money than was ever gained before. Because Climate Change is politically neglected, we are in danger of helping to cook the planet. Already we are alienating ourselves from the large number of countries which are seeing the need to reduce emissions. How the Coalition expects there to be investment in a country which is being turned into a barren desert is inexplicable.

    We looked as if we might have been heading in a more sustainable direction a decade ago, until that failed PM got into power and spoiled everything to do with reducing carbon emissions – and spoiled the political scene with crass ignorance and daft policy settings. And he is still there wrecking the joint with his cronies. The sinking ship has attracted all manner of demagogues aboard, some getting into Parliament on the tiniest number of votes and bringing with them a weird collection of strange and alien views. They deride “political correctness” but practice political incorrectness.

    The whole situation is insufferable, because if it continues the future looks very bleak – and all of us will be ruined, says Hanrahan.

  5. Nigel Drake

    Just another ‘stacked hand’ in the interminable “Game of Mates”.

  6. Andrew J. Smith

    Both the GBRF largesse and the NEG are political media PR constructs about preserving fossil fuels into the future at the expense of renewables and the environment while masquerading as policy.

  7. Kaye Lee

    You have to hand it to the Liberal party. Michaelia Cash just said, when asked about the AWU raid leak, “I would like to know why the AWU does not want to show the Australian people, in particular the members of the AWU, that the money they were spending on their behalf was properly authorised.” Well right back atcha Michaelia!

  8. Pingback: Great Barrier Reef Politics #auspol #qldpol #StopAdani #ClimateChange #NoNewCoal | jpratt27

  9. Phil

    As long as Murdoch the Muckraker retains dominance over our ever concentrating main stream media, bastard organisations like the coalition will operate with impunity – they cannot be held to account and they know it.

    This says it all about the GBRF “Anna Marsden is married to Ben Myers, chief of staff to former Queensland premier Campbell Newman”

    Joe Bjelke Peterson’s ghost – ever present, now stalks the Great Barrier Reef

  10. Cats

    Lets not forget Lucy Turnbull is a patron of the foundation and previous board member- far to close to home

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